A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
I grew up poor.
Often, when one reads memoirs or oral histories from folks who grew up where I did — that is, in Appalachia, or in the South, or somewhere that’s either both or in-between — one will see a disclaimer from the speaker or writer indicating that while they were poor, they didn’t know it at the time. That is, though they were poor by the numbers, their basic needs were met, and they were surrounded by others facing similar economic realities. For me, that was not the case. I was poor, and I knew it. We had substantially less than most folks in our community, and I knew that too. My mother had a less glamorous and lower-paying job than did the parents of most of my classmates, and I knew it. Sometimes, we’d move on short notice because we couldn’t pay the rent. Sometimes, the move was a temporary or extended stay with family members. We ate a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese, we consumed plenty of cheap hot dogs, and steaks were a tax return treat. We lived in an assortment of rented trailers for much of my childhood, a fact that made me unbearably self-conscious. In short, as I said, I knew we were poor. I knew that most folks around us considered us to be white trash. I also knew, in the way children know something they can’t articulate, that I would probably be poor all my life.
Today, despite the odds, I’m not poor. My wife and I live a comfortable middle-class life. We aren’t rich, and sometimes we still worry about money, but our direct payroll deposits at the end of the month keep coming, staving off any crisis, real or imagined. Our cars aren’t new, but they are nice. Our home isn’t huge, but it’s a hell of a lot nicer than any of the homes I occupied growing up. I still eat mac and cheese, but only by choice. These days, we prefer organic veggies, whether homegrown or store-bought. I have a master’s degree and I’m working toward a doctorate. My wife already has a doctorate. She’s a psychologist, and I’m a college professor. Sometimes, for me, social media is a stark reminder that very few of the poor people I grew up with were able to escape the twisted and life-strangling web of poverty in which we were mired growing up. It turns out that I am one of the lucky ones. I am the statistical anomaly, and I think about this almost every day of my life.
Earlier this week, as some of my students were furiously writing their final exam essays, I happened to run across a recent essay by David Joy. Though I have never met him, he and I grew up in the same county, finished both undergrad and graduate degrees at the same university, and I’m told, share a mutual love for Innovation Brewing. Joy’s essay cut straight to my soul. He articulated so many of the things I had felt all my life but rarely admitted. There’s a sort of raw truth in his words that reveals something important about Appalachia.
Joy writes: “I’m tired of an America where all the folks I’ve ever loved are dismissed as trash, where people are reduced to something subhuman simply because of where they live. I’m tired of having to explain it. I’m just goddamn tired.”
Those words brought the tears to my eyes. I, too, am tired of seeing the people I love – MY people – reduced to lazy, ignorant hillbillies. I’m tired of seeing them labeled as trailer trash who face the burdens they carry through some vague or unarticulated fault of their own making. I’m ready for Americans to take a long, hard look at why Appalachia is the way it is; I want people to begin to think critically about the plight of poor people, not just in Appalachia but in all of America, in historical context.
I have spent a goodly portion of my life since entering academia attempting to explain Appalachian poverty. At first, I thought that perhaps l lacked the credibility to write about Appalachia because I grew up here. Later, I thought that I could write about the region so long as I did not inject my own story into my work. Now, I realize, I have a responsibility to write about my region and my people specifically because I have experienced the heartbreaking realities of Appalachian poverty firsthand, first as a child growing up poor in the mountains, and later, as an observer who sees the tragedies and realities firsthand almost every day of my life.
In central Appalachia’s coal country, where I lived for seven years of my adult life, people are often poor because of coal and not in spite of it. Similarly, in southern Appalachia people are often poor because of tourism rather than in spite of it. When one seriously considers the history of the region, particularly the economic history, one realizes that Appalachia is a rich land with poor people.
I remember being caught off guard the first time I heard Appalachia described in that way, as “a rich land with poor people.” I was in my first semester of graduate school, already in my mid-thirties, and I had lived my whole life here without thoughtfully considering the stark contrast between the region’s abundant natural resources and the people who had never experienced anything resembling abundance.
When poor Appalachian people are reduced to being white trash, it seems, in a rather twisted way, more reasonable that their resources can be exploited and extracted without adequate compensation. When hardworking men and women in central Appalachia are portrayed as dumb hillbillies, it is easier to pretend that coal companies are benevolent saviors rather than plunderers treating the region as a sort of internal colony. It seems more plausible, when Appalachian people are stripped of their humanity, that they should be sent down mine shafts to break their bodies and their hearts for the benefit out-of-town coal barons making a mint on the backs of the working poor, while such exploitation is heralded as a boostraps-up opportunity. When a new Chevrolet and a double-wide counts as making it big in a region marked by stark poverty, it is easier to pretend that coal jobs are a step up rather than a crushing boot to the throat. When a region is tagged a “Big White Ghetto,” it is easier to destroy its environment, rip off its mountaintops, and poison its water for profit.
As I have written previously, there exists no single story of Appalachia, nor of Appalachian poverty. Not all of Appalachia is in coal country. However, tourism, timber, or iron can be inserted in the place of coal to make a rather convincing case that in most of Appalachia both poor people and their land have been exploited for the benefit of those who have no desire to live here. From hardwood flooring to cheap electricity to affordable vacations and second homes, much of the rest of the Eastern United States benefits from the sacrifices made by those who call these mountains their home.
Many of the people I grew up with, and many of my family members, are stuck in an impoverishing system that they do not understand. They do not understand it, frankly, because they do not have the time to think about it. Joy writes: “It’s hard to be hopeful when you’re worried about your next meal, when the only thought to ever cross your mind is how you’re going to make it through the day.” So, too, is it hard for folks to consider the cause of their station in life when they are worried about important things like paying the rent and feeding their kids their next meal.
The goal of my scholarly work has become translating academic jargon and theory about poverty and Appalachia into a language that might reach average Americans who know no more about Appalachia than what they see on the news or in reality television. It is difficult at best to understand the complex historical, economic, and sociological forces that lead people like my mother to end up living their lives as white trash, looked down on by those who are interested neither in the academic explanations nor the humans behind the circumstances. My mother lived all 55 years of her life, I think, knowing that she came from nothing and was destined to have nothing. She died mired in the same poverty in which she spent most of her life. I can assure you, this was not her choice. And I can assure you that I am the exception, not the rule, because I became upwardly mobile.
Many of us who write and teach about Appalachia come from a background of poverty or white trash, though few of us are quick to admit it. For those of us with roots here, our work is sometimes an attempt to understand our upbringings and sometimes an attempt to help others see the world around us as we have seen it. For most of us, it is more than a form of therapy. It is a form of action. As I continue to write about the region that is my home, and the region’s impoverished people who are more like me than most of my colleagues will ever realize, I hope to find the words that might make people start giving a damn.
We MUST write about and study the problems of Appalachia, and we must learn to do so in ways that reach beyond our own isolated academic circles. We have to find meaningful ways to engage the public at large with our work and with what Joy describes as “a landscape drenched with humanity.” Until we are successful in injecting that unvarnished humanity into our scholarly work, in a way that is more narrative-driven and less theoretical, we stand little chance of getting average Americans to look beyond the cruel stereotypes and heartbreaking statistics. But writing about it alone is not enough. We must allow our work to change us, and we must hope that it changes our readers, too.
Blessed are the white trash, for they are humans too.
Copyright 2017 Joshua Wilkey
Joshua Wilkey resides in western North Carolina with his wife Betsy in an old homestead in the Whittier community, where they grow their own organic vegetables and eggs. He teaches at a small liberal arts college that focuses on experiential education.